Union: Grain companies agree to resume talks

Workers have been locked out since Feb. 27

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter


Updated: March 20, 2013, 7:26 PM


Rules, policies at heart of labor dispute

Both United Grain Corp. and the International Longshore and Warehouse union agree that their dispute is over workplace rules and policies, not wages or benefits.

United Grain Corp. says through a spokesman that its new contract, which took effect in December, allows the company to hire fewer employees to load ships; provides flexibility to use elevator employees to assist in ship-loading; and increases management discretion in hiring and staffing decisions.

It also allows United Grain to use non-union employees for some jobs union employees are unwilling to work or refuse to work, according to the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, which includes United Grain and other terminal operators.

The contract allows United Grain to expand shifts to up to 12 hours if needed, and increases the company’s flexibility in setting work stop and start hours.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union members in December overwhelmingly rejected the contract, which it says demands more than 750 concessions from workers. The union says concessions would gut its ability to represent the interests of workers, including maintaining fair workplace standards and family-wage jobs.

The United Grain contract includes an hourly wage ranging from $34 to $36, with benefits valued at $30 an hour, according to the grain handlers association.

— Aaron Corvin

Union dockworkers, locked out for more than three weeks in a contract dispute with United Grain Corp. at the Port of Vancouver, say the company and two other operators of Northwest grain-export terminals have agreed to return to the bargaining table.

The agreement to renew talks is outlined in a March 15 written response from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. The ILWU’s letter, obtained by The Columbian, says the union has agreed to meet with United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities on Friday and Saturday in Vancouver.

“Also, we believe the continued participation of the (federal) mediator would be constructive,” Robert Lavitt, attorney for the ILWU, wrote to Glen McClendon, attorney for the grain-terminal operators.

Pat McCormick spokesman for the Grain Handlers Association, issued a statement Wednesday confirming the three grain-terminal operators “will be meeting Friday and Saturday with representatives of ILWU and mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.”

The new round of discussions would be the first since December, when the Grain Handlers Association made its last contract offer to the ILWU.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are urging the parties to resolve their differences. In a March 18 letter to company and union officials, the senators say they hope a separate interim agreement the union reached with another terminal operator — Temco — will help the union and remaining companies (United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities) produce fruitful talks.

A collective-bargaining agreement, the senators wrote, “is not only important for the health, safety and economic well-being of a number of our constituents” but also for “the functionality of companies, ports and the economy of the Pacific Northwest.”

‘Temco’s vested interest’

The relaunch of negotiations comes nearly a month after United Grain decided on Feb. 27 to lock out 44 union dockworkers. The decision, which the company made after alleging a union official sabotaged equipment and saying it fired the person, followed a months-long disagreement between the two parties over the terms of a new labor contract.

Since the lockout began, United Grain has filed a lawsuit against the union official it alleges damaged equipment. The union has denied any wrongdoing on the part of any of its members. The Vancouver Police Department is investigating.

Meanwhile,the ILWU has filed an unfair labor practice charge against United Grain, which the National Labor Relations Board is investigating.

On Wednesday, union dockworkers maintained picket lines in Vancouver, and United Grain continued to operate its terminal using managers and other non-union employees.

In his March 15 letter to McClendon, Lavitt wrote that the union would prefer to have Temco — a joint venture between Cargill, Inc and CHS Inc. — participate in the renewed discussions, too. In fact, it’s understood that any final agreement between the ILWU and the Grain Handlers Association will override the union’s temporary agreement with Temco, according to Lavitt. “Given Temco’s vested interest in the final outcome of these negotiations, we believe Temco should be offered the option to participate,” Lavitt wrote. “However, the union is not insisting on Temco’s participation as a condition of returning to the bargaining table.”

Jennifer Sargent, spokeswoman for the ILWU, said Wednesday the union is “optimistic that these talks will be productive.” The Temco contract “meets the needs of the workers and the employer,” she said, and the union believes it’s an agreement that the other three terminal operators can live with, too. Sargent declined to discuss any contract details.

In his statement, McCormick, the spokesman for the grain-terminal operators, said the companies “remain committed to achieving a fair agreement with the ILWU” that provides “competitive parity” with contracts the union signed with grain-terminal operators in Longview and Kalama.

The Pacific Northwest has nine grain shipping terminals, with two in Puget Sound and seven along the Columbia River. At issue is a dispute over a new labor contract between the ILWU and three companies — United Grain, Columbia Grain and Louis Dreyfus Commodities — that operate a total of four grain-export terminals in Vancouver, Portland and Seattle.

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports, including nearly half the nation’s wheat exports, move through Columbia River and Puget Sound grain terminals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On average, about 3.2 million metric tons of grain moves through the Port of Vancouver annually. And about 16 percent of U.S. wheat exports comes through the port.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com